When famous or successful people become addicted to drugs and die young, whether from drug use or related causes, we wonder, “Why did they throw it all away?”
The question itself makes a big assumption—that somehow only people who have nothing to lose become addicted, or use drugs in general. Or that fame or money can buy you out of addiction or overdose.
Fame or no fame...
The truth is, anyone who uses drugs can become addicted. And just because someone is famous, that doesn’t make their addiction any more glamorous. In fact, addiction, like many serious diseases, levels the playing field: It doesn’t matter how attractive or talented or popular or smart a person is or isn’t—once they become addicted, their disease often ends up defining their life and, for far too many, their death. In fact, the entourage that makes a living off of someone’s success might be reluctant to urge them to pause their career and get help.
That doesn’t make the loss of these popular figures any less sad. But instead of turning them into mythic super-souls, maybe we as a society should take them off the pedestal and see them as just people. Like all of the other people who succumbed to their addiction or other serious mental health problems.
Take, for example, two greats of the music world, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse—artists that left us too soon and whose addictions were in the spotlight for all to see. Musically speaking, they were worlds apart. Kurt, the founder and front man of Nirvana, rocketed to fame in the early 1990s and was the face of “grunge” music. Amy became a star in 2006, when her album Back to Black hit the charts and showcased her blend of 1960’s Motown soul and girl-group pop with contemporary and very personal lyrics.
This summer, two terrific new documentaries—Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck—show that as different as Amy and Kurt were, there was a lot of common ground in their childhoods, addictions, and deaths. Judging from these movies, it’s undeniable that addiction was a major force in the lives they lived and their tragically early passing. Both Cobain and Winehouse publicly rationalized their substance use at the beginning, possibly influencing others to do the same. They would both come to acknowledge the problems that addiction brings, but this wisdom seemed to come too late.
Even in light of all they shared in life, their deaths teach us the only real lesson to take away, that life is hard for everyone. That drugs and alcohol don’t make troubles go away for very long, and for many people, they make the troubles far worse.
We can love the music Cobain and Winehouse made and look up to them as people, but that doesn’t mean we have to live tragically as they did. In the end, what they left behind isn’t just their music or the love of their family, friends, and fans—it’s the unanswerable question of the amazing things they didn’t live long enough to do.